The Usefulness of Dissatisfaction

Jul 05, 2016

Ric Zank and his company, the Iowa Theater Lab exerted a significant influence on me as well as on many of my colleagues during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The work was physical, imagistic, emotional and, to me, unforgettable. During rehearsals for a new production of Moby Dick in 1975, the lead actor of the company, the brilliant and physically masterful George Kon who was playing the whale, grew increasingly aggravated and upset. At one point his frustration intensified and escalated to a point that he literally ran up a wall of the rehearsal hall. Most directors, concerned about the situation, would have called the rehearsal to a halt in order to talk through the frustrations and dissatisfactions in the room, identify the root of the problem and calm everyone down. This is not what Ric did; rather, he chose to stage the run-up-the-wall moment into the piece. At a particular moment in the production, George Kon was required to run up a wall, an action that captured the power, energy and majesty of the whale.

Dissatisfaction can be a useful tool in the creative process. My own tendency to dispel the problem and keep equanimity rather than harnessing the irritations, frustrations and vexations in service of expression is perhaps a mistake. In order to allow dissatisfaction to become my ally, I must learn to relax in its presence.

One of the many reasons that I choose to work with a company is that I am consistently fed and challenged by the particular dissatisfactions of my colleagues. The members of SITI Company are rarely satisfied. In rehearsal, usually just as we reach a solution or an understanding about some aspect of a project, just as we think that we have arrived at a solid grasp on a bit of staging or a key moment, inevitably someone will say, “Yes, but what is it really?” This can feel like an annoying question but it is also a necessary one. The hermeneutic process of, “What is it? Yes, but what is it really?” has become a useful rehearsal method. Together we lean into our shared dissatisfactions.

In 1999 I directed a devised piece with SITI Company at Actors Theater of Louisville entitled Cabin Pressure, a work based upon the many faceted aspects of the actor/audience relationship. For one scene we decided to re-create the experience of being backstage during a performance. We finally arrived at what felt to me to be a solid structure for the scene, quite amusing and a bit reminiscent of Michael Frayn’s play Noises Off. After rehearsal that day, feeling quite satisfied with our work, I returned to the Mayflower Apartments where the company was housed, for a good night’s sleep. At two in the morning I heard a knock at my door. I opened the door to find SITI Company actress Ellen Lauren standing outside with a boom box in her hand. “May I come in?” she asked. She entered my dimly lit living room, sat down, switched on the piece of music that she had brought with her and began to describe in great detail what an actor actually feels backstage during a show. Riveted, I was transported through her words and music into the private and singular world of an actor’s subjective experience during performance. Needless to say, the following day in rehearsal we jettisoned our Noises Off style scene and created a new one, far more poignant and true. Ellen’s dissatisfaction with our first solution led us to a better production.

I have found that the most successful theater projects and rehearsals arise out of a deep restlessness or perhaps it is what Martha Graham called, “a divine dissatisfaction.” As much as I hate to admit it, the best rehearsals frequently occur when I am most driven by doubt, unease and even emotional distress. Dissatisfaction can become a hindrance but it can also be a driver. At best, and when handled correctly, dissatisfaction can trigger creative stubbornness and the endurance to persevere. When I feel most stuck and hopeless I try to cultivate an ability to remain curious within my deep dissatisfaction about the way things are at that moment.

In 1910 Gustav Mahler wrote his final, unfinished 10th Symphony knowing that he had a failing heart and that his wife had recently been unfaithful. He died before completing the work. Music critic Tim Ashley calls the piece “one of the most troubling, paradoxical works in musical history.” In listening to the 10th I am tempted to guess at the motivations and processes behind the creation of this work. I believe that I can hear Mahler’s dissatisfaction, perhaps linked to his restless search and questioning. I imagine his nagging uncertainties: how to live in flux, in a finite body, with a faithless wife, how to continue after the death of a child? Where is the world headed? In the music, I hear moments of almost unbearable intensity and an unremitting arc of emotion. The piece begins in a romantic, rather familiar 19th century manner. Mahler seems to be roaming around, searching through the detritus of the past and building very gradually towards what portends a great breakthrough into a new and perhaps more dissonant future by way of an unanticipated, jarring, dissonant repeated chord. Suddenly, after a brief silence, the chord arrives and it seems to me, listening, to suggest the complexities of the coming 20th century including scientific and artistic revolutions, perhaps the birth of cubism and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, maybe even anticipating Schoenberg’s “emancipation of dissonance.” Perhaps the chord goes as far as to foreshadow the coming of two world wars. Did Mahler, in writing the symphony, overcome his dread of death and his love for his errant wife? We will never know. What I do feel in Mahler’s last piece is a colossal unrest and his dissatisfaction with the way things were.

Over the years I have staged classical operas and also worked with many living composers, on both new opera and music-theater. The music that speaks successfully in performance seems to share a common sensibility of a search or a journey upon which the composer has embarked. The listener is the recipient of the composer’s creative passage, curiosity, frustrations, dissatisfactions and passions for the undertaking. The composer not only has something to say but also has something to discover. Weaker musical works noodle around, feel pointless and academic, and lack drive and the energy of a search or a quest.

In my own daily life the sight of a homeless person on the street or exposure to someone with an illness that cannot be cured takes me aback. I am often appalled by the way that people treat one another and the way that cutthroat competitive professional and political battles are waged. I am saddened when exposed to ill-mannered social interactions, callousness and disregard as well as to violence and vicious political machinations. Both these small, private and larger, public interactions feel indelibly connected to one another. Working in the theater allows me to function and occasionally flourish in a life that otherwise frequently disappoints, outrages and dissatisfies me.

It turns out that I can use my own personal irritations and dissatisfactions towards successful and communicative creative acts. As a theater director I am first charged with defining the parameters of conduct in the rehearsal hall. I endeavor to create an atmosphere of respect, humor, attentiveness and ethical fairness. It is possible that the social structure constructed consciously within the space of a rehearsal can translate into an audience’s experience of the play in performance. The audience not only receives the play but also is privy to the quality and integrity of the social system built up in the rehearsals, people working together at the top of their abilities. All of our individual and shared frustrations and dissatisfactions provide us with a valuable fuel to action.